Arnold Palmer Invitational 2019: Matthew Fitzpatrick Leads Rory McIlroy After R3

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2019

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - MARCH 09:  Matthew Fitzpatrick of the United States plays a shot on the first hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard at the Bay Hill Club on March 09, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Moving day at the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational lived up to its name, as Matthew Fitzpatrick jumped up eight spots into sole possession of the lead at nine under par. 

There were a lot of big changes near the top of the leaderboard in the third round. Rory McIlroy put himself in prime position to win this tournament for a second straight year with a 66 that dropped his total score to eight under par. 

Chris Kirk jumped up 49 spots into a tie for sixth place by carding a six-under 66. Tyrrell Hatton ended the day five under par after starting over par thanks to a 75 in the second round. 

The news wasn't all good, especially for Friday's co-leaders, Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley. Both players finished with a birdie on No. 18, but it couldn't help mask their poor showings overall.

Bradley went into the clubhouse with a three-over 75. Fleetwood was one shot worse with a 76 to fall four shots off the lead. 

Here's what the top of the leaderboard looks like with 18 holes remaining, via PGATour.com:

1. Matthew Fitzpatrick (-9)

2. Rory McIlroy (-8)

T3. Aaron Baddeley (-7)

T3. Matt Wallace (-7)

T3. Kevin Kisner (-7)

T6. Chris Kirk (-6)

T6. Luke List (-6)

T6. Charles Howell III (-6)

T6. Rafa Cabrera Bello (-6)

T6. Keegan Bradley (-6)

Fitzpatrick seems to have put his game together after a rough start to the 2018-19 PGA Tour season. The 24-year-old finished 54th at the WGC-HSBC Champions in October with two rounds of 80 and 81. 

After missing the second cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am thanks to a 76 in the third round, Fitzpatrick has now played six consecutive rounds under par dating back to the WGC-Mexico Championship. 

Saturday was Fitzpatrick's most promising performance of the weekend. The five-time winner on the European Tour played a bogey-free round and had five birdies. 

Putting was the key for Fitzpatrick in the third round. He gained 2.9 strokes on the green, a significant turnaround from Friday when he cost himself 1.8 strokes, per PGATour.com

"We just played really smart," Fitzpatrick said of his third-round performance, via Golfweek's Bill Speros.

One more round of smart golf from Fitzpatrick will give him his first win on the PGA Tour. He's been one of the best closers in the sport since 2001:

It won't be easy, though, because McIlroy is getting more comfortable with each passing round. He opened with an even-par 72, followed it with a 70 before putting his best foot forward Saturday. 

McIlroy has seemingly been building toward a victory all season. The Irish superstar has finished in the top five in each of his previous four PGA Tour events, including a runner-up showing at the WGC-Mexico Championship two weeks ago. 

Per Justin Ray of 15th Club, McIlroy can join an exclusive club that only includes Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus with a win Sunday:

The 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational was the last time McIlroy won on the PGA Tour. He did it on the strength of a 67 in the third round and 64 in the final round. This year is shaping up to follow a similar script, but there is still a long road ahead to finish the job. 

Fleetwood picked a bad time to have his worst round of the season. He appeared to be locked in a two-man battle, along with Bradley, this weekend. Both players were four shots clear of the field after the second round. 

Saturday was a day both players would prefer to forget. Bradley stumbled out of the gate with four bogeys through five holes, with a birdie mixed in on No. 4, en route to making the turn with a four-over-par 40. He settled down with eight consecutive pars before a birdie on No. 18.

Fleetwood spread out his misery with two bogeys on the front nine and a double bogey on No. 10 that dropped him to five under par. He did post back-to-back rounds under 70 on Thursday and Friday, giving him a glimmer of hope for a comeback Sunday. 

As was the case Saturday, no one should feel comfortable with their positioning. Bay Hill has humbled plenty of players already this weekend. The field remains wide-open for any of the top contenders to take control of the tournament in the final round. 

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